What Does Cultural Appropriation Really Mean?

Culture is not static, and within a country or a community there are countless variations on and innovations in tradition (which might be even more vigorously internally policed than the experimentation of outsiders). In 2016, Bon Appétit published a recipe for halo-halo, a Filipino iced dessert, and was widely decried for adorning it with gummy bears and popcorn. Some called it a “desecration.” Certainly these are nontraditional ingredients, but the tradition in this case is only a hundred years old: The Philippines started receiving shipments of ice in the mid-19th century and, as chronicled by the Filipino historian Ambeth R. Ocampo, halo-halo evolved in the 1920s and ’30s from a Japanese dessert of red beans in syrup over ice (itself part of a much longer tradition in Japan, going back to at least the 10th century). The very name “halo-halo” means “mix-mix,” and the treat is characterized by exuberant abundance. It’s entirely plausible that someone somewhere might try adding popcorn instead of corn or cornflakes, both known variations, and gummy bears to approximate, if poorly, the chewy texture of jellies. As the Philippine-born chef Yana Gilbuena has written, halo-halo is “endlessly customizable.” The issue, then, was a lack of history and context; the magazine took liberties without first explaining what it was taking liberties with. (It didn’t help that apparently no Filipino was consulted.) Above all, it turned halo-halo into just another commodity — a trendy food that didn’t need to be understood to be enjoyed and then discarded for the next big thing. As the Malaysian American artist Shing Yin Khor writes in their 2014 comic “Just Eat It,” “Eat, but recognize that we’ve been eating, too, and what is our sustenance isn’t your adventure story.”

The harm in appropriation comes when a culture is shrunk in possibility, reduced to a set of disembodied gestures — style without substance, which can verge on blasphemy, as when a non-Indigenous person speaks of having a spirit animal. (Indigenous peoples object to New Age rituals, the American anthropologist Michael F. Brown has written, not because they “are bogus but precisely because they are, in some sense, real. … For them, the New Age is a kind of doppelgänger, an evil imitation close enough to the real thing to upset the delicate balance of spiritual power maintained by Indian ritual specialists.”) In an ever more connected world, there is the risk that culture becomes, as the Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes in “Hyperculture” (2022), “cul-tour”: a sightseeing circuit. Han posits an alternate way of encountering the Other, based “on the friendliness of the AND,” and a new morality in which timidity or recoil is replaced by genuine curiosity, and difference “is not determined by an ‘either/or’ but by an ‘as well as,’ not by contradiction or antagonism but mutual appropriation” — meaning that both appropriator and appropriated are changed, unlike in “colonial exploitation, which destroys the Other in favor of itself and of the Same.”

But how do we get past the hierarchy of colonial exploitation to this utopian “and” in which no one is diminished, with everyone’s heart just getting fatter and fuller? “An idea of cultural plurality that took its bearings from the protection of species and could only succeed by introducing artificial enclosures … would be sterile,” Han writes, and then concedes, “Having lively cultural exchange means that things spread but also that certain forms of life disappear.” Once, Americans touted the idea of the melting pot, with immigrants shedding their pasts and assimilating, which some of us learned too late can be a kind of erasure. Then a number of white Americans began to fear the very thing Han hopes for, their own transformation in the encounter with the Other, themselves melting, and so they beat a retreat. In this they share a bond with other still dominant groups around the world who see in the rise of minorities a diminishment in their own status and so have become determined to reaffirm their identity by “excluding the threatening Other(s),” as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has written. And yet this fundamentalism, he suggests, has an eerie solidarity with its seeming opposite, pluralism, the “ever-growing flowering of groups and subgroups in their hybrid and fluid, shifting identities, each insisting on the right to assert its specific way of life and/or culture” — to draw a line; to protect itself.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/30/t-magazine/cultural-appropriation.html